Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ten Lessons from the Criminalization of Dissent

By Camilo Viveiros
Earth First! Journal

In the aftermath of the 2000 Republican National Convention, I was charged with
multiple felonies and accused of assaulting several police officers, including then
Philadelphia Police Chief John Timoney. I approached my case with the attitude that
the only way to stop the attempts to criminalize me - and dissent in general - was
to organize more effectively than the forces of the state that wanted to shove me
into prison. Largely due to successful organizing strategies and community
solidarity, I was acquitted after three-and-a-half years. Today, we face similar
challenges and must adopt similar strategies in fighting those who wish to put our
comrades behind bars and criminalize our visions.
Right now, the state is sending a message to radical environmentalists around the
country. It is using its power in an attempt to dismantle our networks and
neutralize our militancy. How will we use our power and resources to oppose this
force? How are we going to frame our message? What alliances will we build to
support our imprisoned comrades?
We can't let intimidation and fear outweigh our commitment to solidarity. We need to
challenge the armchair "radicals" who rationalize the conviction of our comrades as
an inevitable result of state repression. Our success in achieving social and
environmental victories - in this situation and all others - depends upon the
ability of passionate activists to gain the support of ordinary people.
Lesson One: Do Not Focus on Guilt or Innocence
It is not legally or politically useful to speculate about or emphasize the
innocence of those arrested. Building your support efforts around innocence is like
building a house out of a deck of cards. You don't want support to vanish if
convictions are handed down or if those being supported plead guilty.
Lesson Two: Don't Spread Fear and Paranoia
Our security culture needs to be revamped, but we cannot let fear of repression or
snitches inhibit aboveground work. Without much larger numbers of people
participating in and supporting radical solutions to environmental and social
problems, we will be easily contained and neutralized. Our own paranoia can close
doors, and it feeds into the very marginalization that the state is trying to
This is not a new concern. Noted activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has said, "I remember
in the 1960s when all the terrible things started to happen, like COINTELPRO, the
movement became so shut down. Mistrust grew. People were reluctant to let anyone in.
New people didn't know how to join the movement; they were made to feel unwelcome.
We have to build it to be stronger."
Lesson Three: Your Support Does Matter
It's easy to feel that our actions will have no impact on the ultimate outcome of a
trial, but this is not the case. The support that I received throughout the
five-year period between my arrest and my acquittal was essential to my own
psychological wellbeing. Support groups can also aid with legal research, grassroots
investigation and evidence gathering, which all help to strengthen a defense.
Remember that the outreach we do for the defendant is crucial, since political
trials are influenced by public sentiment. The judge in my case actually heard radio
coverage of an event held by my supporters. The awareness that my supporters created
diminished the power of my adversaries.
Lesson Four: An Injury to One is an Injury to All
The charges filed against individuals are meant to send a message to the rest of us.
These cases are attempts to impede our collective ability to wage struggles against
injustice. If we sit by and let repression build, it will weaken our ability to
resist future persecution. We must set the course of history and prove that they
can't intimidate us. Together we are powerful.
We must ask ourselves: Are we creating a culture of resistance that romanticizes
action but shirks solidarity? Those who rejoiced when Vail burned must now defend
those charged with that action and others like it.
Some environmentalists and social justice activists are OK with the feds wanting
blood from accused "ecoterrorists," forgetting that this blood will be used to smear
any movement that becomes a threat. The feds will use any convictions they gain to
justify increased political repression toward the rest of us.
Lesson Five: Combating Marginalization
Besides attacking radicals and revolutionaries, repression attempts to squelch and
sterilize dissent. The state knows that it is not our actions themselves that pose a
threat to its power, but rather the possibility that non-activists will recognize
radical action as something more than unconstructive, suicidal or impossible. Our
enemies want to scare people away from participating in radical action and
supporting radical solutions.
The authorities attempt to marginalize us, and they co-opt some of our demands to
make us seem unreasonable. It is time for us to be honest: We need a lot more power
than we currently have for us to succeed in stopping the environmental destruction
and social injustice that surrounds us.
We must strive to create the conditions that the state fears. We need to create more
than radical niches and small communities of revolutionaries, rebels and insurgents.
If we want to walk our talk, it is necessary to nurture broad-based links with
diverse groups who will acknowledge connection to us and recognize that we have
interests in common.
Lesson Six: Map Our Connections
When looking to build broader support, we need to map out our personal web of
connections. This includes our ethnic and religious heritages, and the places and
communities to which we are connected. Who can we mobilize? Who can support us?
Repression can be the time to reconnect with our family and friends on our own
terms. When I was facing felony charges, I tried to remember all of the people and
organizations that I had ever been associated with - I even contacted the folks that
I had gone to high school with. We might be surprised where solidarity comes from.
This is also a great time to talk about ourselves - who we are, what we value and
why. Inadvertently, my case turned me from a behind-the-scenes organizer into a
spokesperson for the radical movement. By showing who we really are, we can turn the
negative situation of repression into a positive outreach scenario.
Lesson Seven: Expand Our Base of Support Through Networks of Solidarity
Most people simply aren't interested in "civil liberties" or "the right to dissent,"
let alone the right to break unjust laws or to challenge the assets of exploitative
institutions. This does not mean that we shouldn't work to change the interests of
the majority. But we should recognize that we can build broader support if we
emphasize our tangible contributions to the community over our particular tactics.
This was the main thrust of the defense around my case. We highlighted the valuable
contributions that I had made to the community and my ongoing commitment to
organizing. Even if people did not believe that I was innocent, many supported me
because they knew that the fight against landlords, as well as environmental and
economic injustice, would be weakened by my absence. They knew this because I had
worked with them for years to address these issues. By illustrating why jail would
deprive the community of a valuable and constructive person, we were able to steer
the focus away from the legal questions and the terrain of the state. Instead, we
showed how the government would waste resources by imprisoning those contributing to
the social good.
Many community organizations are descended from historical movements that, at one
point, were marginalized and criminalized by authorities. The suffrage movement, the
slavery abolitionists, the labor movement, ethnic and immigrant struggles for
justice, and even those seeking religious freedom - all these movements have gone
through times when they were painted as villains and violent troublemakers. We need
to reach out to members of various organizations, and we must fight against
political amnesia by reminding them of their past.
Our support work should also include a recognition of the repression faced by
immigrants and people of color. We should build upon our common interest in
eradicating and preventing the growth of the prison industrial complex. We should
learn from the ways that restorative justice advocates have utilized economic issues
as a way to reduce the popularity of expenditures for criminal injustice. We should
highlight how more funding would be available for housing, health care and other
services if the state were not squandering taxpayers' money to persecute and punish
One more way to bridge this gap is to emphasize the ways that repression maintains
systems of oppression and injustice. Our challenge is to foster principled alliances
with others who share a common enemy, so that when we are under attack, others will
come to our aid. Many marginalized seniors and tenants, who never would have gone to
a political prisoner event, showed support for me because they related to the way I
was criminalized by the police. I learned that we gain a much larger base of support
when we highlight the role of repression in maintaining common systems of
But these alliances are strongest when they are well established. The day-to-day
solidarity and organizing work that we engage in is a social insurance that can be
harvested when under attack.
Lesson Eight: Racism and Resources
If we do not cite the ways that class and color affect our ability to get justice,
then we perpetuate the myth that speaking "truth to power" is enough. In reality,
access to resources improves one's chances of countering the significant resources
of the state.
We cannot expect to receive solidarity from oppressed communities if we don't
acknowledge and ally ourselves with their historic and ongoing struggle against
forces of criminalization. Ignoring or denying privilege and racism will only
isolate us further and play into the state's caricature of the radical environmental
movement as out of touch with the working class and communities of color.
In my case, I made it a point to acknowledge that the support and the resources that
I received were helping me to fight injustice in a way that many could not. I spoke
about the systemic injustice of the prison industrial complex: Many languish behind
bars without support, lacking the resources to build their case, find witnesses and
gather evidence. We should use our work against the repression of eco-activists to
highlight these dynamics rather than obscure them.
Lesson Nine: Strategic Thinking
What does being strategic really mean? It means making a plan on how to achieve
goals and monitoring your success along the way. It means learning from mistakes and
thinking carefully about how to outwit - and out-organize - your enemy.
Just as the forces of repression try to isolate us from our support, we need to
isolate them from their own base. In my case, we discovered that John Timoney - the
cop who was charging me - had worked with the British Army's efforts against the
Irish Republican Army. We publicized this to the Irish Republican segments of the
New York community - including the police - to divide Timoney from one of his bases
of support. Through a combination of lobbying and disruptive tactics, we made
Timoney unwelcome at police accountability conferences. By mobilizing community
groups from multiple cities, we were even able to cost him his job as security
consultant for the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Lesson 10: Stopping Nightmares and Fulfilling Visions
In Uruguay, organizations like the Plenary for Memory and Justice confront and
expose torturers active in the CIA-backed dirty war. When these organizations talk
about justice, they do not just mean finding out what happened to their disappeared
comrades. They are also working to fulfill their fallen comrades' visions of freedom
and justice for everyone. We need to stay focused and continue the work of those who
are under attack by the state.
Success in achieving justice for our comrades and realizing our radical visions is
dependent not only on our willingness to put our bodies on the line in direct
action, but also on our ability to acknowledge that we can be crushed easily by the
state unless we are constantly building and expanding our base of power.
Today's nightmare for our locked-up comrades should be our wake-up call to
re-evaluate and reinvest in our strategies for bringing our visions to fruition. By
building networks of solidarity, talking about the community work done by our
comrades, making connections with the struggles of immigrants and people of color
against the prison industrial complex, and organizing the unorganized, we will be
better able to counter state repression and create the world we are striving toward.
If we do not, the future - for our comrades, ourselves and the Earth - is bleak.
Camilo Viveiros is a community organizer from Fall River, Massachusetts, who
encourages radical activists to do more outreach and power analysis to develop
revolutionary approaches to community organizing and popular education. He believes
that repression can breed resistance but only if we strategize and organize. He
faced more than 100 years behind bars if convicted of the charges waged at him by
John Timoney.

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